I suspect most of you have heard the latest absurdities from Bill O’Reilly. Just to get you caught up, last month Bill O’Reilly tried to discredit atheism with the following argument:
I’ll tell you why [religion is] not a scam, in my opinion. Tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can’t explain that. You can’t explain why the tide goes in.
I’ll spare you the explanation of how the tides work, but suffice it to say, we do understand where they come from. The internet — and most especially Neil Tyson on The Colbert Report — laughed in O’Reilly’s ridiculous face. As Colbert put it, “”There must be a God because I don’t understand how things work.”
O’Reilly shot back by calling his critics “pinheads,” saying:
How’d the moon get there? Look. You pinheads who attacked me for this? You guys are just desperate. How’d the moon get there? How’d the sun get there? How’d it get there? Can you explain that to me? How come we have that and Mars doesn’t have it? And Venus doesn’t have it? Why not? How’d it get here?
I have enormous respect for people like Ethan Siegel (of the “Starts with a Bang” blog) who believe that O’Reilly, or others, might actually want to know the answers to these questions. Hell, I want to know the answers to these questions, which is why I started studying astrophysics in the first place.
But O’Reilly doesn’t.
Or at least the character he plays on TV doesn’t want to know, which is arguably much more pernicious. I am almost dead certain that Bill O’Reilly knows damn well what causes the tides (or did at one point and simply forgot), but he doesn’t care. He had a brain fart when he made the first comment about the tides, and rather than admit that it was a silly example, he acted like a five year-old in every conceivable way. At every step, he simply asked, “And where did that come from?”
But let’s forget about O’Reilly in particular, and instead address the “O’Reilly” character. As I said, I don’t think even he believes what he’s saying. He says these stupid things because there are people out there for whom his arguments resonate. And with respect to Siegel, Colbert, Tyson, and everybody else on the internet trying to answer “O’Reilly’s” argument directly, I say, “you’re answering the wrong question.”
There are several underlying assumptions hidden in his facile argument:
- Science doesn’t have all of the answers.
On this, “O’Reilly” is absolutely right. He’s picked some silly examples, the tides and the moon and the galaxies, since we actually have a pretty damn good idea of where they come from. But if he were smarter, he’d be able to come up with examples that we really have a lousy handle on, like why the dark energy has the value that it does, or what dark matter really is. These are hard questions, and while we have some ideas, the fact remains that we can’t confidently claim to have all of the answers. But it’s pure crackpottery to believe that because we can’t currently explain everything that we explain nothing.
- The universe is conducive to life, and was thus obviously created for us.
His comment about the tides and the number of moons and all of the rest of that seem predicated on the idea that somehow the earth is just right for us. Indeed, if it weren’t we wouldn’t be here having this conversation. But there’s a world of difference between the strong anthropic principle (in which the world was designed for our comfort) and the weak one which simply says that life will preferentially exist where life can exist, and intelligent life, doubly so. In looking at the immensely improbably posterior probability of finding us here, “O’Reilly” clearly doesn’t realize that he’s doing Bayesian statistics wrong.
- We can’t ever explain first causes.
Finally, “O’Reilly” thinks he’s being profound when he points out that science hasn’t yet — indeed may never be able to — make any definitive statement about the first causes in the universe, or even the first causes in life on earth. Physics really only describes the universe shortly after the Planck time, just as evolutionary biology really only describes how life changes once it’s already gotten started. It’s a straw man to say that we’ve “failed” because we haven’t explained the ultimate origins. We admit we haven’t. Indeed, I think it possible that we’ll never know exactly what happened before the beginning. But this does not mean that the rest of our physical theories are worthless. It may have escaped “O’Reilly’s” notice, but theistic explanations have the same problem, but none of the predictive after the moment of creation.
In the end, I think the media did the right thing with this story. In making O’Reilly (and “O’Reilly”) a laughing stock, people will hopefully be ashamed to hold these sort of views. Because honestly, rational argument has clearly failed.